Natalya Zima thought she could handle the cold.
Her hometown - Oymyakon, Russia - was attractive to anyone bearing adventure-lust, nerves of steel, or the genes of a yak. With temperatures that reached -50?, proclaimed the “coldest year-round inhabited human settlement” - it had to be. Cars shivered in heated garages, abysmal plumbing lead to the use of outhouses, glasses and saliva froze to the faces of the unwary, and no crops could be planted - so all hopes for survival were based upon a lovely diet of meat. Oh, there were ways to stay alive, and pleasurably warm - namely Russian Chai, vodka in the rest of the world. Life was spent in limbo - the balmy 60s were suffocating, but the brisk chills of winter could prove fatal. Alcoholic beverages aside, most humans considered this frotspit as close and as far from hell as possible.
To Natalya, it was home.
A hundred-percent native, with one parent Yakutian and the other Russian, Natalya inherited her mother’s dark complexion, beetle-black hair, and deep, dark eyes, like pools of ink. Her father’s longer, angular face and spiked eyebrows gave her a visage of rationality and perseverance (also inherited from her hearty, solemn family). Widely known as the most reliable teen in perhaps all of Russia, it was her humble opinion that whatever came, she could handle it with panache.
Until the day winter stole her best friend - her twin sister.
No sign of impending disaster appeared evident as the afternoon began. Two girls - Natalya and dreamy Sofiya - curled by the fireplace, Tay (as only Sofiya was allowed to call her) marking off answers to her schoolwork with quick, firm pen marks; Sofiya gazing rapturously into the swaying flames as though watching a dance. As Natalya tucked her papers away, rolling her shoulders to ease their stiffness a thought wriggled its way through her mind - she was supposed to pick up an order of fish in town today, before her parents arrived home from university (where they both taught). Now, she would need to rush - trekking through snow and ice and numbing chill outside to the outhouse (Might as well go if she was already outside), and then into town and back.
Ah, the joys of winter.
She stood abruptly, moving swiftly for the door, where a small mountain of snow gear waited. Sofiya flopped back onto the rug, stirred, and sat up. The girl considered her twin with eerie eyes, the palest blue Natalya - indeed anyone - had ever seen, like the sky before snow. It was even stranger how Sofiya knew where her sister was without really seeing her. Once, years before, Natalya had asked, and Sofiya had replied, “I just feel where the safety comes from.” Natalya, who grew up beside her, never flinched at her stare - but she knew some members of the town who still did. The intensity of her sister’s gaze always made it feel like ice was creeping up her back - but she didn’t care. Sofya was perfect the way she was, and Tay wouldn’t change her for the world.
“Where are you going?”
“Out.” Natalya nudged her affectionately with a booted foot. Sofiya flinched and blinked. She inherited more of their father - pale skin, brighter eyes, hair so blonde it could be taken for silver. All their life, she had been thin and bony, like a fragile bird, despite their mother’s many attempts to feed her up.
“I was supposed to pick up some fish at the shop. I’ll just use the outhouse then, too. You stay here.” They may have been twins, but Sofiya always seemed younger, smaller, delicate - her disability keeping her hidden away from the outside world. She still considered the snow dreamily like a lost relic of a fairy tale. Natalya, ever sensible, saved tender, imaginative moments for private. It was hard being an introvert in a family of four, but she managed. Sofiya wasn’t like other siblings anyway - often quiet and contemplative, she seemed to exist in her own world, where snow fell slowly in never-ending spirals.
“It’s so cold out.” The pale girl pursed her lips. “I should come. I don’t like the idea of you going out...”
“That's exactly why you shouldn’t. You’d lose track of the snowdrifts or go the wrong way and then we’d freeze to death. I can’t hold the fish and guide you at the same time.”
Sofiya scowled, eyes flashing with strange ferocity. Her sister had a way of making others uneasy - she flashed from hot to cold, quiet to screaming, frenetically intelligent to creepily blank in a matter of seconds. To Natalya, it was like how she imagined riding waves - sail smoothly or cling on for dear life. So far, Tay had managed to stay afloat. Sofiya had always been strange - but Natalya had always loved her, no matter what. The number of sneering children she had punched or knocked down for laughing could attest to that.
“But I want to come, Natalya!”
Tay exhaled, pulling on snowpants, boots, two coats, scarves, two gloves, muffler and a hat. The fur of her parka felt so downy and soft, she had often fantasized about cuddling in and never emerging. She wrapped Scarf #3, a fierce red color she approved of, around her face, muffling her next words.
“You want to wait outside the outhouse while I freeze my rear off?You want to trek to town with me and struggle home trying to hold on to frozen fish? You want to wade through so much snow you can barely hear your own footfalls, much less mine? It’s too dangerous. You could fall. You could get lost. And I can’t risk that, Sof. I just can’t.”
Sofiya turned silently to the thick-glassed window, the two-foot long icicles dangling from it, something like longing in her gaze.
“... Alright. Please come back soon.”
It wasn’t like she could do anything else. More than five minutes of exposure would result in the very real risk of frostbite - but worse would be Sofiya’s terror if she failed to arrive.
“Don’t let the cold goblins snatch you.”
Natalya scoffed, perfecting the eye-roll so many teens aspire to while internally squashing flutters of fear.
Years before, when the twins’ mother attempted to explain the cold to the little girls, she murmured that came from Goblins with long, jagged noses, needle-like hands, and breath that froze anything too close. The demonic little ice monsters crept through the night, brought ice and snow, and only in the spring would they creep away and hunker in their caves to the north. There, they waited greedily for the sun to fall from the sky, when they could come upon the land again.
The story resonated with both of the girls for different reasons. Natalya hated it. From that night on, every time she ventured outdoors, she hurried, dashing to and fro, not daring to look over her shoulder - sure she would find the obsidian eyes of a Cold Goblin peering at her. Now, being traumatized by a fairy tale seemed ridiculous; but in those eerie hours before night fell, she never liked to be alone - sure she was being watched, sure, the Goblins would wait by her window, tapping gently in the night, salivating as they contemplated the innocent girl lying senseless to the world, only mere feet away…..
Sofiya loved the tale with an obsessive fascination. More than a decade later, during the worst storms of the year, Natalya would jump as Sofiya clenched her hand and whispered, “Something’s angered the goblins.” Tay never responded, having long ago given up attempting to reason with her sister’s faulty logic or explain why the innocent story worried her so.
“.... Natalya? Are you still here?”
“Oh - yes.” Sometimes, it could be hard to remember to speak her response. Sofiya knew so much about her already, noticed so much, it took effort to remember she couldn’t see every motion.
Her sister pursed her lips, but Tay quickly pressed a finger to them, stifling her words.
“No more. I’ll be back soon. Don’t you worry.” The practical twin expertly maneuvered to the door - years of wearing snow gear for most of the year gave her a grace found nowhere else in the world. Upon its opening, frigid wind shot through the rectangle of wood, reaching icy tendrils to pull her into the gale, and Tay let it. Most of survival depended on fighting the chill, but sometimes, just sometimes, it was best just to let it sweep her along. Her last words to the sister, she loved more than anything, were drowned out by the roar, but with Sofiya’s excellent hearing, she should have made them out:
“No fairy-tale’s going to get me.”
… … …
The cold swept into Natalya’s fragile body with her first inhale, drying her lungs upon contact. Every part of her body suddenly felt as though it had been drenched in ice water and left in the Arctic - exposed, quivery, deathly cold.
Ah, the sultry days of Russia.
She had to keep moving. The only alternative was death - and Sofiya was waiting.
So she staggered on, raw wind stinging her face like salt drenching an open wound. Though Natalya had smothered herself in every piece of snowgear she owned, the chill still clamped her legs like irons. The rush of sympathy she always felt for the gulag prisoners who built Kolyma Highway, the only road out of the nearby city Yatatusk, intensified painfully - while she was relatively healthy, well-fed, and used to the frigid climate, those men had been starving, sick, and underprepared for savage ferocity of the cold.
The outhouse, a crude structure, had been built vaguely like a pyramid (Sofiya, upon hearing this description, had joked that the ancient Egyptians once settled in Russia, then retreated home, away from the numbing chill). Yanking open the wooden door, Natalya flung herself inside and was nearly overwhelmed by the stink - permafrost thwarted any plans of plumbing, and pipework was negligible at best. Praying fervently that her backside wouldn’t become numb upon contact with the gelid seat, she emerged moments later, miraculously unscathed.
Now, to town, she resolved, before she become a block of solid ice- which wasn’t so outlandish when she lived in temperatures fifty degrees below the freezing point of water.
What might have surprised an average tourist - not that many dared venture so far into the notoriously freezing country of Russia, much less so far north- was that Oymyakon seemed relatively modern. Natalya hurried down the streets, past the statue of Vladimir Lenin towering over the town square, hand clamped over her face to preserve precious warmth.
Passing over the bridge was always the best part of Natalya’s trip into town. The frozen river below reflected the sky - dull grey, blotted by deceptively soft white fluff. Elegant curves transformed the grey railing into into ellipses and hearts, swirling designs - the one part of town that looked like it could actually come from a fairy tale, a romantic's dream. Hands now firmly jammed into her pockets, she started across, squishing toes further into thick boots and wiggling them frantically. Severe frostbite hadn’t struck her yet, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
Iona was waiting, as usual, at the counter of the one shop in town. His permanently-greased apron and hands might have degraded his appearance but joviality engulfed the man at all times of the day. He grinned and waved as Natalya stumbled in.
“Natalya Zima! Wonderful! I have your father’s order. Whitefish? What a treat.” It was. The residents of Oymyakon lived mainly off meat, and fish was a delicacy. Natalya smiled back, relishing the warmth of the room.
Iona, broad face crinkling, heaved the sack full of fish into her hands. “Be careful out there. Supposed to be one of the coldest days on record. Even crusty old Baba Yaga wouldn’t be out in this, brr.” The girl grimaced. Another fairy-tale reference? But still - if hearty Iona, who loved to brag about the time he waited out a day outside, with only a yak to keep him warm, was worried about the cold, it didn’t bode well. The back of Natalya's neck tickled.
“I should get home. Sofiya will be waiting.” She hated to leave her sister alone.
“Understood. Best wishes!” Iona nodded sagely, shivering as Natalya staggered back out, into the cold and falling shadows.
… … …
She wasn’t sure when the sense that something had gone awry hit. But by the time Natalya trudged back across the bridge, she shivered frantically- and not just from the frosty wind. She need to get home - once night fell, anywhere exposed was a death sentence - but an ominous feeling roosted into her stomach as if this wasn’t the only cause for urgency. It didn’t make sense - she was the most practical teen anyone knew - she shouldn’t be frightened by the superstitions her sister called Ghost Warnings. But maybe I’m not as sensible as everyone thinks. Maybe there’s more of Sofiya in me than I knew. Maybe…. Maybe something is really wrong.
As if on cue, a foreboding wind swept around the little, hunkered town, snapping her hood neatly off her dark hair, whipping lightly falling flakes into a raging whirlwind. Staggering past Lenin, Natalya raced down the road, past the heated garages and dark, deserted houses. Crunching through enormous snowbanks, soaking her outer snowpants, indigo eyes squinted with terror, she stumbled frantically towards the Zima’s house.
Darkness swallowed it, which shouldn’t have been a surprise- neither of her parents, Nicolai and Ekaterina, would be home yet. Yet - there should be some light on. Even if Sofiya hadn’t needed it, she wouldn’t have turned it off. The girl’s thoughts suddenly wrenched to the nightmarish tales their mother told - of goblins and wisps, how Natalya was always watching her back, convinced one day icicle-sharp, frigid claws would appear at her throat, yanking her into a world of shadows and doom.
What if Sofiya had been taken?
No. Those were just stories. There’s nothing out there except ice and snow and frostbite.
So why was she running so fast then, depleting the thin air trapped in her lungs without stopping to take in more? Why was she flinging precious fish aside, smashing in the the door, surveying the entryway with petrified eyes-
Natalya’s heart froze to ice and dropped away, vanishing into the twilight of her soul.
Nothing remained of the fire but smudgy embers. The room was a dead husk, silent, gray and cold.
Sofiya had vanished.
Fighting back tears that would only freeze to her face, Natalya spun to the outside, then back.
“Sofiya! SOFIYA!” No answer.
The goblins. The monsters of ice, always lurking just out of sight. They had taken her. She was gone - whipped away into the raging blizzard.
Surely the goblins wouldn’t be so considerate as to take her parka, boots, and other snowgear with her. Nor would they have put out the fire or turned off the lights.
And she highly doubted they would leave boot prints, leading away from the house, into the sparse woods as far as her eyes could see.
Natalya sank against the doorframe as the glacier of realization crashed into her. Something had gone horribly awry. But it wasn’t cold goblins. In fact, it was worse - far, far worse.
Blindness enveloped her sister like a shroud. And she was wandering, alone, at dusk - on the coldest day of winter.
… … …
Russians pride themselves on being sensible. Melancholy, perhaps, but smart. Not vapid enough to go back outside into the cold with no idea of when they would be able to find warmth and shelter again.
Sofiya Zima, ever vagarious, was missing.
Tay struggled through the storm.
No one could truly describe the cold who has never lived in it almost year-round. Natalya liked the cold. Brisk days, snowbanks, grey skies - her type of weather.
But the kind of cold that was -58?, that crept up her ribs, across her chest, through her bones, into stinging ears, numb hands, then marched boldly across eyes and mouth, freezing saliva - was unbearable.
More so, however, was the thought of losing Sofiya.
So she struggled through the snowbanks, following the bootprints, towards the small patch of woods - if it could be called that. Only ten trees graced the frozen ground, all in various states of death and decay - nothing so vibrant could last here, in the land of ice and snow.
Why, why, why, pulsed the incessant drumbeat in Natalya's mind, as she staggered towards the minute grove. Why would Sofiya leave? She had memorized the layout of the town during her fourteen summers, but the ever-changing snowdrifts of winter always slowed her footsteps, scrambled her sense of direction. Could she have headed for the woods by mistake? Why would she have left the house in the first place? Had she been trying to find Tay? Angry that she had been forbidden to come along? Convinced some fantastical creature was calling her? The possibilities could have stretched around the world. Though most children were expected to take up the mantle of sensibility and responsibility, Sofiya had been excepted from this unwritten rule for so long, as the town adjusted to her obvious disability and smaller peculiarities. Being blind in the Coldest Human Settlement had almost been considered a death sentence - but Sofiya had made it with the guiding hand of her persistent parents and twin sister. She hadn’t done anything this foolish for so long….
Is this my fault? What if I lose her?
Where is she?
Not among the trees, Tay soon discovered. Her bootprints - if they were hers - continued on, towards the great sheets of ice in the distance, rising up like mountains, heading north. This was madness. If Sofiya has been out as long as her sister feared, she could already be gone. The odds were insurmountable.
Natalya keep going.
The cold became unbearable now, clamping around her waist, legs, until it was impossible to bend either. The luxurious coat she loved so much slowly crystallized, forming a tessellation she couldn’t quite make out. Ice coated her lips, her tongue….. Her hands and arms gradually numbed, until what had to be her feet resembled blurry, wobbling weights.
Natalya’s mind drifted to heat and warmth, to times of laughing with her family, smiling politely at Iona’s off-color jokes, rich, warm meat, slathered with sparkling vodka, a sleek, gleaming Christmas tree, the roaring, abrasive warmth of the fire, a chorus of singing angels, Sofiya’s small, fragile frame against hers….
Sofiya. Her beautiful, funny, sweet sister, the angel Tay loved more than anything. From the moment two-year-old Natalya understood her sister couldn't see, the day her mother found Sofiya bobbing back and forth, attempting to puzzle her way around the bedroom, only succeeding in crashing into the bed, dresser, and window, one by one, Natalya knew the pale, thin girl, like a bird with a broken wing, needed to be protected. Tay was the perfect person for the job. She was the one who sat with Sofiya through shaking fits, subtly turned her tears to snorting laughter, listened to her dreamy, half-waking stories about elves and witches and goblins, who held her as they skated across the frozen river, laughing, her mittened hand so slim in Tay’s. Natalya held on with all her might, as though if she didn’t, Sofiya would slip away and be gone forever.
Pain stabbed her chest like an icicle now, and breaths were becoming harder and harder, as though inhaling smoke. She remembered raging bonfires - the town needed them to dig graves, for the frozen ground would not yield to mere spades - and suddenly, her entire body seemed to become one, boiling hot, scorching, horrifying. She fumbled to remove her gloves, hat, overcoat, I wondering idly if they would burn a grave for Sofiya like that, soon.
The ground beneath her gave way, and Natalya crumpled to the slippery ground. The shock of raw ice beneath her exposed slammed the sense back into her for a moment, enough time to reflect how hopeless it all was. Lying flat on the ground, cheek pressed to the ice, snow gear scattered behind her like a gingerbread trail, dark hair soaked, hands coal-black, half-frozen tears drip from Natalya’s eyes. Part of her knew - she became dangerously frostbitten, dragged by the chill like a fish caught in a current. Going forward only spelled death.
And then, looking down, she choked on her own glacial saliva.
In her dazed state, Natalya lost the prints.
It could not be happening. It was her job to keep Sofiya safe! It was her job to keep Sofiya alive!
Natalya lurched to her feet, all rational thought crashing to the bottom of her head like a splintered icicle. No. No. No!
“Sssssofiyyyya….” The name raw, cracked, slurred; ice slipped down her throat as she gasp frantically, fighting to form words. “Sssofiya! SOFIYA!”
Only her voice called back, echoing off the ice mountains in the distance.
Natalya’s mind stretched, contorted into a vast, icy expanse as the practical, sensible girl slipped away forever. Skating across the soulscape, she ran, arms flailing, mouth open, towards the mountains. She would find her. She had to find her!
The ice shifted before her, curving from straight, spiked sheets to elaborate swirls, thorny barbs, delicate as glasswork, deadly as the night and then began to crash down, into an avalanche, barreling towards the lone girl. She sped through the grinding, cracking maze as a starscape whirled above her, chased by a demon of fire with her father’s face, crying for Sofiya, pleading not to take her away-
And then she saw them - the goblins. As the ice contorted around Natalya, a picture of delerium, spiraling into a maze of madness, their evil silhouettes rose from the shadows, claws outstretched, and she knew that they had always been there, watching with their beetle-black eyes - waiting to pounce.
She struggled, now only clad in a jacket and boots, as the beasts’ icicle-sharp claws clutched her chest: frigid hide against her neck, gelid breath upon her mouth, all without a sound. Night fell around them, in blinding rays of violet and green and ebony. Was it really twilight, or were they falling away, into the Goblins’ home world, where they would snap off her arms, head, legs like fragments of ice savoring every bite?
She could not move. They were holding her burning body down, against the frigid ice, and the cold penetrated into her body, through her veins, freezing her blood, coating her eyes with thin white frost, stealing over her soul…
Natalya’s face contorted, struggling to break free from the cage of madness, of darkened, twisted fairy-tales-
Sofiya…. Sofiya…. Her sister… her blind sister…. missing ….
So why, as the white flowed smoothly over her mind as her shallow breaths faded into silence, did she see her, pale and beautiful, faraway and cold, standing just beyond the Goblins - mistress of them all, clad in robes a thousand shades of sea and a crystalline crown, reflected in her eerie, blind eyes? Eyes that gazed straight into Natalya’s own as though they had seen all along, as though everything had been a joke, a dream. A reflection of light and dark.
Sofiya’s pink lips quirked into a smile…. She was waving her hands…. beckoning…. No. Welcoming. She was drawing her twin into the abyss of phantasmagoria and darkness, and Natalya could not resist.